Chorale polishes 2 gems

Vastly different Williams, Puccini works, similar treatment

November 06, 2008|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Music director J. Ernest Green showed marked musical and political courage in presenting the challenging Dona Nobis Pacem, a major choral anthology warning against war written in the 1930s by Ralph Vaughan Williams. This work, not heard previously in this area, and Puccini's rarely performed Messa di Gloria are vastly different gems of the choral repertoire that underscore Green's programming skills.

Last Friday and Saturday at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, Green conducted the 180-voice Annapolis Chorale, Annapolis Chamber Orchestra and three soloists performing these works, beginning with three marches by Williams before turning to the transcendent Dona Nobis Pacem, written in the English composer's maturity.

After intermission, the focus was on the youthful creations of Italian opera composer Puccini, starting with Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums), a doleful orchestral piece followed by a joyous Messa di Gloria, written by the 22-year-old composer to complete his graduation thesis at the Milan Conservatory and a work that reveals the young composer's gift for melody.

The program began with Williams' "Seventeen Come Sunday," "My Bonny Boy" and "Folk Songs from Somerset," well-played by the orchestra to provide a lively program start. Joining the orchestra, the chorus brought its magnificent sound to Dona Nobis Pacem - a work these singers started rehearsing in August. This complex music is filled with contrasts, from railing against war's cruelty to dolorous resignation to pastoral serenity, the music perfectly fitting the irregular cadences of Walt Whitman's searing anti-war poetry and the majesty of biblical texts.

The opening Agnus Dei soprano solo was riveting as sung by Fatinah Tilfah, introduced to Annapolis Chorale audiences last season when she was soloist in Brahms' German Requiem. Tilfah made her Carnegie Hall debut singing Williams' Dona Nobis Pacem. At Maryland Hall, her superb voice rose over the orchestra and chorus in "Lamb of God, grant us peace," her technique enabling her to float notes that grew in intensity and power.

The Agnus Dei was followed by "Beat! Beat! Drums!" based on Whitman's poem. It begins with the orchestra creating the sound of a relentless march to war, the drums propelling ominously. The chorus sings, "So fierce you whirr and pound, you drums - so shrill you bugles blow."

Baritone soloist Joshua Sekoski made an impressive Annapolis debut, his voice conveying a soulful compassion in "Reconciliation" as he sang Whitman's words: "For a man divine as myself is dead; I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin."

Even more poignant was "Dirge for Two Veterans," a funeral march for a father and son "dropped together" and now being marched to their "new-made double grave."

The last section contains biblical lines, "Nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more," followed with "Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth, peace, good will toward men" before the soprano ends the piece with a final invocation.

The second half of the program began with Crisantemi, composed in 1890 for string orchestra and later used in the third act of Puccini's opera Manon Lescaut.

Messa di Gloria was first performed in 1878 and not again until 1952, after it was discovered by a Catholic priest and musicologist. The pervasive theme is an exultant dedication to God. The lovely Agnus Dei has a theme similar to one found in Manon Lescaut. The influence of Verdi can be heard in sections reminiscent of marches in Aida. The orchestra brings majestic drama to the piece.

Over half the piece is the exuberant Gloria, featuring the chorus accompanied by pizzicato strings and later woodwinds rising to an ecstatic Gloria in excelsis, leading ultimately to a sublime tenor solo in Gratias agimus tibi ("We Give Thanks for Your Great Glory) delivered by tenor soloist Andrew Owens in his Maryland Hall debut.

Other highlights were the "Incarnation to the Virgin Mary" that preceded the reverent Crucifixus section. A dramatic near-operatic section is found in Sanctus, Sanctus ("Holy, Holy"), which begins with a baritone solo that was beautifully sung by Sekoski. The chorus followed with a thrilling Hosanna before returning to subdued reverence.

Baritone Sekoski joined tenor Owens in an eloquent Agnus Dei to end the Mass. Here in this final duet, the Messa came to an abrupt, nearly jarring end, which perhaps indicates the young composer's inexperience.

This exciting start of the chorale's classical season will be followed next month when the group begins its busy season with a Christmas concert and three Messiah performances.

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